The Health of It All: Teen Dating

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Throughout the month, advocates across the nation work together to start conversations about how youth can stay safe, happy and healthy in their dating relationships. Parents play an incredibly important role in starting these conversations at home as well. Today’s Parenthetical post provides tips for parents to help their teens makes healthy decisions when it comes to dating!

Parenthetical contributor, Nancy Vance, wrote about recognizing and identifying abusive relationships among teen couples in a past post on dating. Her post emphasized that intimate partner violence among teens is more common that we might think and that education and communication are key to protecting your teen.

In the US, 16-24 year olds have the highest per capita rate of intimate partner violence.  According to a 2003 report from U.S. Dept. of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics—this rate is 3 times the national average.

In addition to addressing teen dating violence that is occurring, parents can prepare their teen to make healthy choices when it comes to choosing partners and maintaining relationships. While it is important for parents and teens to understand the warning signs associated with partner abuse, it is ideal to try to prevent abuse by being able to identify and seek positive patterns of behavior.

Here are 5 tips for helping your teen learn about healthy relationships and acquire the skills to protect against abusive or violent relationships.

1. Understand the Problem. Understanding that intimate partner abuse is a problem amongst teen couples is important for two reasons. First, parents need to realize that such abuse does happen, and at much higher rates than we tend to think. Parents have been shown to underestimate the prevalence of dating violence, despite the fact that almost 1 in 4 teens report some form of abuse within their relationships. Second, it is vital that both parents and teens are aware of the types of abuse that can happen. Having this information is the key to recognizing unhealthy patterns early on. This article from Everyday Feminism, does a good job of outlining the different types of abuse that occur, and also describing the many variations such behaviors can take. For example, while physical abuse may seem pretty straight forward (e.g., punching somebody), there are other abusive behaviors such as blocking an exist from a room or grabbing an arm to keep a partner from leaving which teens are less likely to identify as abusive

What Are the Warning Signs for an Abusive Relationship?

  • Extreme jealousy or insecurity
  • Constant put-downs
  • Possessiveness or treating a partner like property
  • Telling a partner what to do
  • Constantly checking in on a partner
  • Explosive temper
  • Making false accusations
  • Isolating a partner from your friends and family
  • Preventing a partner from doing things they want to do

From Day One NY

2. Discuss Gender Role Stereotypes. While a majority of teens use terms such as “being nice,” “ staying monogamous,” or “treating a partner well” to describe a healthy relationship, research shows that many teens still hold very gendered beliefs about what it means to be a partner in an intimate relationship. Results from teen focus groups suggest that boyfriends are expected to be protective and pampering of their partners, while girlfriends should be supportive and exclusive within the relationship. However, such ideals often have negative connotations among teens. Alarmingly, boys were described as “less manly” around their girlfriends, and girls reported feeling less comfortable and relaxed around their partners.

Talking to your teen about gender roles can provide an important foundation for building self-esteem and exploring identity. If a boy wants to do nice things for a girl, it important for such actions not to be associated as ‘less manly,’ but rather, a nice and masculine gesture. If girls want to be expressive or eat as they normally do around their boyfriends, they need to be supported. As teens learn to feel more comfortable with themselves, they can feel confident in expressing themselves, whether they are in a relationship or not. Parents can also help challenge the idea of gender stereotypes by asking open-ended questions that allow teens to think about how popular media represents men and women, and whether or not these are behaviors or attitudes that should be copied.

3. Identify Relationships Ideals. An important step to identifying unhealthy relationship behaviors, is having a clear idea of what it means to have healthy relationships. While dating is a new experience for teens, research has consistently shown that early patterns of dating behavior tend to persist well into adulthood. Parents can help teens identify what sorts of qualities are important and healthy in potential partners.

One part of understanding relationship goals is to identify the differences between what is healthy and unhealthy. The absence of abusive behaviors is not the same as a healthy relationship that is built on trust and equality. Having teens compare and contrast the qualities of Power and Control in Relationships with Equality and Respect can be an insightful exercise to get your teen thinking about relationships and respect.

Another useful exercise for teens who are starting to date can be the creation of an ‘Ideals List.’ This is simply a list of qualities that your teen highlights as important to him or her in a potential partner. These items can change, and the list can grow, as teens develop their own identity and acquire more experiences with relationships. Talking through these ideals and asking open ended questions to your teen about why certain qualities are important can create a safe space to dialogue about relationships, and also create a point of reference if a relationship begins to go awry. For example, rather than accusing a teen’s partner of being abusive, you could say, “I remember you wrote on your ideals list that having choices in relationships was important to you. Do you think your partner gives you the space to make your own decisions?” In this way, teens can feel some authority of their own lives, while continuing to be in communication with parents.

4. Build a Support Network. Teens benefit when parents talk about relationships to them before they start dating, provide supervision for teens who are dating, and model healthy relationship behaviors. Peers and siblings are also an important influence on how teens think about relationships, as well as sources of support when things become stressful.

Empowering your teen and community to discuss relationship violence and be a part of the solution can be an effective way to give youth voice, responsibility and power to challenge the norms. On the site teens can start campaigns to support various causes, one of which can be ending relationship abuse. Teens can either get involved with current campaigns or start their own. Also, is an organization that partners with youth in NYC to end relationship violence. Sharing these with your teen shows that youth can be part of the solution when it comes to ending relationship violence.

5. Know where to get help. Both parents and teens should have resources that are available in case help is needed. Explore local organizations or resources that can be useful for your teen, especially if they feel embarrassed or uncomfortable coming to you, or to their friends, first.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
The National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline: 1 -866-331-9474

Relationship violence, especially in the teen years, is a real issue. However, equipping teens with the skills to value themselves, and others, is an important step towards challenging the many beliefs and norms that continue to perpetuate dating violence. Parents can serve to reinforce what it means to display healthy behaviors, and remind their teens that they are worthy individuals who deserve respect and equality within all of their relationships.

For more information on relationship safety, check out


Article by Dayana Kupisk

dkupDayana is a graduate student in Human Development & Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Dayana previously worked as a life skills coordinator at a residential living program for teens and young adults. She has one older brother, and, for the first time in her life, is living in a different state from her parents.